Scripture: Luke 15
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a work filled with memorable and quotable lines that have permeated throughout our cultural imaginations, and perhaps one of the most famous among them is “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” So what’s in a name?
I remember when Bethany and I first found out we were expecting our first child; we were quickly able to settle on names for our coming child: one for a girl and one for a boy. As the pregnancy continued, we remained convinced we had picked the right names for our growing child, we still didn’t know what we were expecting but as the weeks went on we were convinced that we had settled on the names. Being that Bethany is a planner, we decided to find out the gender of the baby beforehand and so we scheduled a gender ultrasound when the time was right to find out whether we would be having a girl or a boy. As the date approached our certainty over the girl’s name we picked waned to the point, where we began frantically trying to find a new one. I had always loved the name Philippa, or Pippa, and I suggested it to Bethany, but she originally balked because this was right around the British Royal Wedding and she was worried that everyone would think we had named our daughter after Princess Catherine’s sister, Pippa Middleton. It wasn’t until we looked into the meaning of the name – which means lover of horses – that Bethany was swayed because she herself loved riding and had spent much of her teenage years learning to and then teaching riding. And the rest as they say is history, we were blessed with a little girl and we named her Philippa. The name fits her like a glove, I can’t imagine her being named anything, she has even developed a love of horses to suit the meaning of her name. Undoubtedly she would probably be the same person if we had picked a different name, but her name suits her, and in some ways her name defines who she is.
So what’s in a name? Names are important, what we call something shapes how we see that thing. Names define stories too. For many of you the passage we heard from the Gospel of Luke this morning is a familiar one, and it probably has a familiar name that you remember it by. When you heard our Gospel parable this morning, if you were to give it a name you probably think of it as the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” – a story about a lost son who returns home, a story that we can relate to. Perhaps if you’ve done some focused study on this passage, or if you relate better to the second son (who stayed home), you think of this passage as the “Parable of the Lost Sons” since in their own way both of the sons in the parable are lost. But what if there might still be a third name for this parable?
What’s in a name?
Last Saturday at our Lenten Retreat Day, I chose this passage as our focus for the day, and through sheer coincidence (or perhaps divine intervention) at the noon Eucharist we heard the very same passage read, and the preacher that day challenged us to think that perhaps instead of the “Parable of the Prodigal” or the “Parable of the Lost Sons” we should think of this story as the “Parable of the Loving Father”. After all Jesus begins the parable by saying: that there was once a father who had two sons – the focus is on the father and not the sons here – and ultimately it is the father who permeates throughout the parable, more so than either of the sons. Merely changing the name of the story can shape the way we read it, changing the lens through which we read it and what the Story reveals to us. When we think of the story as the story of the Prodigal or the Lost, we focus on who we might be in the story: am I more like the first prodigal or the second stay-at-home son? But if we think of the parable in terms of the loving Father we are challenged to think not first about ourselves, but rather about what this parable says about God. And so although the content of the parable remains the same, ultimately how we read it changes; changes to reveal to us firstly the very nature of God, before then inviting us to understand ourselves in God’s Story.
So what’s in a name?
How does our understanding of this story change when we shift the focus from the prodigal or lost to the loving father? Firstly, rather than focusing on the destructive actions of both sons, we instead focus on the radical generosity of the father. Anyway you slice it, the father in this parable is crazy: crazy generous, crazy in love with his sons, crazy in offering his forgiveness and finally crazy in how he throws a party. Nothing the father does in this story is done by half-measures, everything he does is full-throttle. When his youngest son asks for his inheritance while he is still alive and well instead of acting in outrage or disbelief, he gives generously. When his son returns, disheveled, dirty, having wasted his inheritance frivolously, what does the father do? He goes out to meet him, he throws all cultural expectations and pride to the wind and rushes to forgive his son, to welcome him back and show to the whole world that he is once more a full member of the father’s family. What does the father do to celebrate the return of this son who had brought shame upon his household? He throws a lavish party – a party so loud with singing and dancing that his eldest son hears the noise and comes in from working in the field. And finally when his eldest son refuses to welcome his brother home, and disrespects the father? He goes out to him, to plead with him, to bring him into the joyous feast and to know the abundance of the father. Again and again the father goes over and above our expectations of generosity, hospitality, forgiveness. By earthly standards the father is reckless, he is crazy – his actions are not ones that would typically ensure the longevity and prosperity of his family. Perhaps even the “Parable of the Loving Father” doesn’t go far enough, perhaps we should re-title it the “Parable of the Prodigal Father” because the father spends his love freely and recklessly, who is wastefully extravagant with his love and generosity, the very definition of prodigal.
What’s in a name?
In the “Parable of the Loving or Prodigal Father”, the character and nature of God are revealed for all to see. Rather than focus on our actions we focus on this radically loving God, this God who is madly in love with us, so madly in love with us that he is reckless with his generosity, reckless with his forgiveness, reckless with his celebration. God is so madly in love with us that he sent his son Jesus to us, to bring us back home. God is so reckless with his love, that he associates with sinners and tax collectors, with the unrighteous, the unclean, with the people at the margins of society. God is so reckless in his love for us that even though humanity rejected Jesus – tortured and crucified him – God uses our rejection, our sin to defeat the very same power of sin and death and open for us a path back to relationship with God, back to eternal life in God’s everlasting presence. The parable reveals to us that it is not in fact we who are prodigals, but it is God. We worship the Prodigal God, the God who defies all of our expectations and limitations, the God who gives recklessly and extravagantly of himself, not counting the cost, but rather doubling down on his investment in us. God comes to meet us in the messiness of our lives, he meets us in the midst of our sin and disobedience, and welcomes us with open and loving arms, welcomes us to share once more in his life-giving Story. God goes forth into the world sharing with each of us his love and forgiveness, inviting us to be transformed by his Story, transformed by the Holy Spirit.
What’s in a name?
Today as we at Grace Church begin to think about what it means to Share God’s Story, to share how our own stories find their place in his story, I wonder what name we would give our own stories of faith? Do we see our own stories of faith as ordinary, as nothing to share or be thankful for? Are we worried that people won’t want to hear our stories? Or perhaps we don’t know what to say, perhaps we’ve never been asked about our own faith story, about our Stories of Grace? If these questions are true of you, don’t worry, remember that we worship a Prodigal God, a God who loves you with reckless abandon, a God that wants you to know the fullness of his love and share it with others so they too can know his extravagant love. Today I challenge you to reframe how you understand your own stories of faith, to understand them as Stories of Grace, stories worthy of being shared, no matter how ordinary they may seem. I challenge you to be reckless with your love, to be prodigal in sharing the stories that God has given you. Over the next twelve weeks, and hopefully beyond, we will be hearing from members of our community about their Stories of Grace, their stories of their experiences with this prodigal God who loves abundantly, who gives lavishly and who forgives endlessly. I pray that you may be encouraged to share your own stories of your own experiences with this amazing prodigal God, with each other and with the world around us. What a joy it would be to hear how God is active in each of our lives, what a joy it would be to learn more and more about this prodigal God from one another. This is my prayer and my challenge. Amen.